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Michael Douglas' sensitive new role: promoting Jewish identity

A conversation doesn't often meander from the life of ants to the Iranian nuclear negotiations, but Michael Douglas, newspapers scattered at his side, is busy these days selling a new Disney film and acting as an ambassador of sorts to promote Jewish identity at a time when Israel is facing increasing international pressures.

As Dr. Hank Pym in "Ant-Man," a Marvel comic caper opening July 17, Douglas plays an aging renaissance man with a formula to miniaturize humans to battle sinister forces. His real-world role has its own complications. Douglas was recently awarded the Genesis Prize, a $1-million honor set up by Russian billionaires to celebrate Jewish culture, especially among Reform Jews and those like the actor who are in interfaith marriages.

Douglas will use the money to fund initiatives over the next year to urge Jews from mixed families, notably those who live outside Israel, to forge deeper bonds with their roots. His history epitomizes sensitive and often divisive questions about Jewish identity. His father, Kirk, is the son of Jewish immigrants, but his mother, Diana Douglas, who died Friday, was a non-Jew, which makes him an illegitimate Jew and a poor choice for the award in the eyes of the Orthodox.

Douglas, 70, said that for decades, Orthodox rigidity made him feel estranged from his faith. His son Dylan's bar mitzvah last year and his father's return to religion later in life inspired him to use his fame to persuade other secular Jews to feel included and "not to drift away." With an estimated 14 million Jews worldwide, he said, it is critical that the population not shrink or "go the way of the Etruscans" and vanish.

"Since I've spoken up about this," said Douglas, who also wrote an op-ed piece in The Times in March about his brush with anti-Semitism in Europe, "I do feel welcomed [by Jews] and do feel that the tent flaps are opened." Douglas added that he is not devout and that it's "not about how religious you are. It's about the tribe."

Douglas' most memorable film roles have focused on contemporary and controversial themes, such as his TV cameraman in "The China Syndrome," about a nuclear power accident, and his Academy Award-winning performance as financial tyrant Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street." He has mastered the conflicting guises of the American man: sly charm, raffish bravado, noble but flawed intentions, and sins, carnal and otherwise, that make him alluring and his falls from grace resonant.

"If I was probably smarter, I would have extended my range other than doing contemporary movies," he said. Silver hair swept back from a tanned face, a soothing rasp in his voice, he had the aura of a man who could save your life or talk you out of your inheritance. "I only have one period picture ['Shining Through,' set amid World War II] in my career, and I've got over 50 pictures now."

"Michael is a complete package," said Matt Damon, who starred with Douglas in "Behind the Candelabra," HBO's biopic on Liberace. "Nobody gets a free pass. You know, you have to keep doing stuff that people go see or else you're out of a job. I assume it runs out for everybody eventually, but if you're consistently in good stuff, then people would trust that you're worth the price of the ticket."

That popularity is part of the reason Douglas received the Genesis Prize — founded by businessmen, including Mikhail Fridman, who has reported ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin — at a ceremony in Jerusalem attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month. His selection, however, has been criticized by some as one of celebrity over merit.

"Michael Douglas has little to no Jewish profile. He is not outspoken about Israel or his faith, and has never sought to be a beacon of Jewish culture," said Joel Braunold, a columnist for Israel's Haaretz news organization. "If the committee was intent on giving $1 million to someone in the entertainment industry, they could have given it to Steven Spielberg, who clearly, through both his films and his philanthropy, has made his heritage part of his success."

The prize's intent to create diversity and assimilation among Jews has chafed ultra-conservatives. The right-wing Jewish Task Force, based in New York, said "the 'role model' example of the Douglas family would lead to the spiritual destruction of the Jewish people, G-d forbid."

The award has drawn Douglas onto incendiary political terrain. During his trip to Israel, he met with Netanyahu and former President Shimon Peres. He traveled near the border with the Gaza Strip and heard concerns about anti-Semitism, the rise of the Islamic State, the Syrian war, the strained relations between Israel and Washington, the changing dynamics of the Middle East since the Arab Spring and the U.S.-led Iran nuclear talks.

"There are people in Europe and Israel who feel we're [the U.S.] really being played for [the] patsy, that we do not understand," said Douglas, noting the acrimony between Netanyahu and President Obama. "There are parties that seem to know a lot and are concerned" that if sanctions are lifted, Iran will have more money to fund militant networks while still working toward a nuclear weapon.

This fear is compounded by the persistent crisis over the unresolved Palestinian statehood issue and how to contain Hamas, which controls Gaza. Both Hamas and Israel have been blamed for violations of international humanitarian law that "may amount to war crimes" during last year's 50-day war, the U.N. has said. The atmosphere has further jeopardized chances for a two-state solution.

"I totally support a two-state solution," said Douglas. "It's just hard to have a two-state solution if the other state doesn't acknowledge Israel's right to exist or voices calling for its destruction." Regarding the proliferation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which much of the world condemns, Douglas suggested that Israel might "find a kind of a balance to make up for those settlements that might stay."

International criticism over Israeli policies toward Palestinians has intensified in recent years. Alluding to defining the story, which is essential to any good film, Douglas said "Israel has to look at its narrative" since it founding in 1948 and years of assimilating Jews from around the world, building an economy, solving water shortages and creating a powerful military. "It's pretty amazing what they accomplished.

"But now they're almost perceived as being the bully on the block, which is ironic when you think of a country surrounded by people who don't even acknowledge they exist," he said. "When you're in Israel, you realize how vulnerable the situation is.... Israel's responsibility is to articulate and clarify that narrative what their next steps are going to be."

Douglas spoke of the region as if he were a journalist or a diplomat holed up in a cafe at the edge of a dicey border. He relished it and, without any pretension, mentioned his insights into how an actor could glide among politicians.

"The reality is, most leaders are so isolated that they're all films buffs. They don't go out much," he said. "So they'd much rather see you than some ambassador. They feel like they know you. There's a comfort. I try to exploit that as much as I can. I'm curious. I'm a news junkie. I try to make projects that have some reflection to what's going on."

Staff writer Julie Makinen in Beijing and special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Israel contributed to this story.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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